U.S. Soldiers Killed In Attack In Northern Syria

Jan 16, 2019
Originally published on January 16, 2019 1:49 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An attack in northern Syria has killed U.S. service members. The Defense Department says they were on a routine patrol walking through a Syrian city when an explosion took place. ISIS has claimed responsibility. The attack follows President Trump's announcement that the United States will withdraw from Syria. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is on the line.

Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Where did this attack take place?

BOWMAN: Well, the U.S. is not saying where the attack took place. They're just saying it was a routine patrol. But from other reports and, actually, from some video from the scene, this took place in Manbij, a town in northern Syria where the U.S. has been patrolling, really, for the past couple of years.

INSKEEP: Is this a place you know well?

BOWMAN: Yes. I was there back in February. Steve, we talked about it when I was there. It was a bustling city - massive marketplace, a lot of produce. It looked like a normal city. And we were walking around without our body armor. We went to schools. We went to the government offices, and it was incredibly safe. Or it seemed that way.

But we heard back then from officials - local officials and from the U.S. - that, you know, ISIS was trying to slip back in and mount attacks, assassinations and bombings. And the following month, March of last year, an American was killed and a British soldier was also killed by an ISIS car bomb. So it seems normal. But really, just beneath the surface, there are ISIS fighters slipping back in.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to understand the context for this attack. We hear that U.S. troops were on routine patrol. I'm a bit surprised because it's a limited number of U.S. troops. They had been leaving the primary ground fighting to their Kurdish allies. Was it normal that U.S. troops in any numbers would be out patrolling city streets?

BOWMAN: It is normal. And the U.S. is actually patrolling now with Turkish forces in that area. And the U.S. has a couple of outposts along the Turkish border just north of Manbij. So yeah, this has been going on for quite some time. And the other thing the U.S. is doing is training local forces to take over those patrolling duties. But with the announcement by President Trump of removing all U.S. forces, people are uncertain whether that training program for local forces will continue. I was talking with someone at the Pentagon recently, a senior person, who said we don't know whether we'll be training local forces. And if you don't have local forces patrolling, ISIS will easily slip back in.

INSKEEP: So we have news of this attack. I gather that the details are fragmentary at best. We know that Americans have been killed. We don't know how many. Do we know the exact circumstances of the attack, how it took place?

BOWMAN: Well, what they're saying is it was some sort of roadside bomb that exploded while this patrol was going past, and that's precisely what happened last March. A car bomb or a buried bomb killed an American soldier, Master Sergeant Jonathan Dunbar, and a British soldier while they were - and actually, in that case, they were on a mission looking for an ISIS member when they were killed. But this is, you know, part and parcel of what ISIS does. They mount vehicle attacks with bombs or just bury bombs, but this is their M.O.

INSKEEP: Granting that we cannot speculate on the motives, that we can't reliably say what the motives of ISIS might be - given the timing, is this ISIS, perhaps, effectively saying to the United States - you think you're getting out; we want to draw you back in?

BOWMAN: That's possible that they would be doing this. But at this point, we really just don't know.

INSKEEP: OK.

BOWMAN: They've been hit pretty hard all around that area. But again, some of them are slipping back in but in small numbers.

INSKEEP: OK. Tom, thanks very much for the update - really appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman on this day when we're learning of an attack in Syria that has killed an unknown number of Americans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.